KPIs from Hell – a viewpoint

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As a trainer and facilitator., I’ve worked with over thirty housing associations in recent years, of varying sizes, and in various parts of the UK.

During workshops and courses, the mention of KPI (key performance indicator) is invariably met with a shudder from participants. I haven’t met one employee who has warmly welcomed either the concept or the practice.

According to the Advanced  Performance  Institute:

“Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) help organisations understand how well they are performing in relation to their strategic goals and objectives. In the broadest sense, a KPI provides the most important performance information that enables organisations or their stakeholders to understand whether the organisation is on track or not.”

Interestingly, this definition doesn’t refer to the very personal and individual nature of KPIs. In my workshops, KPIs are often described as a personal stick, used  to beat the employee into behavioural submission.

In a lot of cases the story revolves around KPIs arriving one day in an employee appraisal interview, turning it sour, or in an organisation-wide email, bemoaning a poor inspection report and introducing KPIs in a way which makes staff feel blamed personally for the overall business performance. KPIs then become a kind of “big brother” approach to controlling behaviour and driving up performance.

These are hellish metaphors. Now let us return to the API’s definition:

“Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) help organisations understand how well they are performing in relation to their strategic goals and objectives. “

When KPIs are used, they should never be felt by employees as being forced upon them, personalised, even felt as a form of threat. They need to collectively owned and committed to. A KPI should be a marker in the sand, a marker put there, not just by managers, but by engaged employees. A KPI helps us to know how we are doing when we are too close to the process. They help us stand back and ensure we are on the right track.

Unfortunately I think the term itself is now laden too heavily with the shadowy baggage of history. Mention of these arouses mistrust and even fear.

In social housing, KPIs have too often been deployed clumsily, using corporate jargon and hiding behind over formalistic employee performance appraisal. People have to know that KPIs are not a stick to beat them with but an authentic attempt by the housing association to respond to external measures of its performance as a whole.

I believe KPIs are better managed in groups, collectively, with shared interest. When KPIs are individualised, they need to be taken on in a voluntary way, with a real restlessness on the part of the individual employee to improve something in their performance –  a bit like an athlete who WANTS to be timed in his/her run. KPIs have to be seen in an authentically positive light or they simply become something to be feared, and worked around.

I’d like to see KPIs invoked in my workshops with more enthusiasm.

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About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

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